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Next chancellor has no easy task

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AUGUST 22, 2016

On Tuesday, the battle cry of the progressive student activist was answered when Nicholas Dirks announced his resignation as UC Berkeley’s 10th Chancellor. In a campuswide email he declared that the time is right for him to “step aside” and “allow someone else to take up the financial and institutional challenges ahead of us.”

But who will be up for the job? Who could step into a storm of scandal and administrative abuse and right the course for the world’s “premier public university”? Who could begin to mend the spirit of a campus fractured by sexual violence allegations ignored, campus finances mismanaged and student outrage kept at bay with a $700,000 fence?

We need a chancellor who understands what Dirks has seemingly failed to grasp: a university can only truly be “premier” if the needs of the students come first.

In a recent conversation I had with outgoing UC Student Association President Kevin Sabo, he reminded me that “there are chancellors who believe that it is their primary mission to educate, empower and send out into the world cohorts of individuals to be change agents.”

Chancellors exist who are beloved by their students. Chancellor Henry Yang at UC Santa Barbara has retained the support of his campus throughout his 22-year tenure. UCLA’s Chancellor Gene Block invites student leaders to his house for barbeque parties, sends out joint emails with the student body president and has even been known to text with student leaders. Few campuses are as tough on their chancellor as UC Santa Cruz is, yet George Blumenthal still attends meetings of their student government.

Dirks has not attended a session of the ASUC Senate or Graduate Assembly since his first year on campus. In what has certainly been a tumultuous and troubling time for graduate students on our campus, GA leaders were promised three separate group meetings with the chancellor throughout the past academic year. Yet they were not granted a single slot until April 2016, at the tail end of the spring semester.

Dirks’ tenure can aptly be encapsulated by an interaction that purportedly took place during that long-overdue gathering at the chancellor’s campus residence. In the midst of a conversation regarding the untenably low wages of student workers, the chancellor assured everyone that he “is in communication with AFSCME”, the university’s largest employee union. This led one student in the room to remind Dirks that he had ignored the union’s concerns for months, and had only given student workers the time of day after they repeatedly protested him and enacted a speaker’s boycott.

Such behavior is indicative of a toxic administrative culture that has pervaded on our campus for the past several years, corroding the essential relationships and trust between an academic institution and its student population. We have learned to expect that student concerns will not be addressed until UC Berkeley receives unfavorable press, or until students raise their voices in protest and hold rallies on campus.

The botched implementation of the cancel for nonpayment (CNP) policy is only the most recent occurrence. Students were not consulted prior to a public announcement that gave us a mere one-month window to navigate an effectively new standard for tuition payment. No surprise, students were falling through the cracks. I introduced a bill into the ASUC Senate in opposition to CNP, which was met by the administration with a point-by-point defense of the policy. It was not until we began to plan a protest against CNP —and our Facebook event received hundreds of RSVPs — that administrators stepped into Eshleman Hall to meet with ASUC leaders to discuss adjusting the policy.

This kind of reactive leadership is no way to run a campus. While I was encouraged by the concession from administrators admitting that a lack of student consultation contributed to a problematic policy launch, I remain skeptical about whether we will actually have meaningful oversight of the university policies and administrative actions that affect our lives as students.

I do not envy the individual who will move into the chancellor’s residence and set down their toothbrush where Dirks’ well-worn mustache comb once rested. The job will be remarkably challenging. They will face the same problems, with the added pressure of ensuring they never repeat the same mistakes.

But is that even possible? One of the hurdles to scheduling a meeting with Dirks has been finding time around his frequent trips to Asia to court funds from wealthy donors for a persistently deficit-ridden institution. Largely out of necessity, Dirks has devoted the majority of his time to being UC Berkeley’s fundraiser-in-chief. When our chancellor spends more time with donors than students, it should not surprise us that he is out of touch with the student experience.

A new chancellor alone cannot solve the issues plaguing our campus. The root causes are structural. We need the administration to partner with students to radically reassess our working relationship. We cannot abide business as usual.

Read more opinion coverage on Dirks’ resignation here.

Chris Yamas is an ASUC senator-elect and UC Berkeley senior.

AUGUST 23, 2016